Tumbes, Peru: Ancient Ruins at Cabeza de Vaca and Tumbes, the Tropical Border City

Plaza de Armas, Tumbes, Peru
Plaza de Armas, Tumbes, Peru

The first time I visited Tumbes, I passed through the city around 4AM after a full day of travel through Ecuador. I’d left Baños on a bus to Cuenca, and as soon as I arrived in Cuenca, I booked a ticket on a night bus to Piura, Peru. After all I’d read about a dangerous border crossing between Huaquillas, Ecuador and Tumbes, Peru, I was a little wary of crossing in the middle of the night, but it turned out my research was outdated. The border crossing complex is modern, well-lit, and super simple: you get stamped out of one country and into another in the same room!

So my first experience of Tumbes was subconscious, as I fitfully slept on a hot, stuffy night bus until the bus attendant shook us gringos awake, thinking we were heading to Máncora like most foreign tourists. In any case, since I had missed exploring Tumbes and Piura on my first pass-through, I was determined to give Tumbes a chance to win me over me with its tropical charm, like my beloved Tarapoto.

Corrales and Cabeza de Vaca (Fortaleza de Tumpis)

Cabeza de Vaca / Fortaleza de Tumpis, Corrales, Tumbes, Peru
Cabeza de Vaca / Fortaleza de Tumpis, Corrales, Tumbes, Peru

And win me over it did. As I researched my trip, I discovered that Tumbes is actually home to a massive pre-Incan complex of ruins pertaining to the Tumpis culture from this region. Located close to the ocean in a strategic position between the jungles of what is now Ecuador and northern Peru, the coastal desert, and the high Andes, this was an excellent place to construct a ceremonial and administrative center. So much so that the Incas took over the site when they grew their empire.

Museo, Cabeza de Vaca / Fortaleza de Tumpis, Corrales, Tumbes, Peru
Cabeza de Vaca / Fortaleza de Tumpis, Corrales, Tumbes, Peru

Despite the importance of this site in Peru’s pre-Colombian history, Cabeza de Vaca, also known as the Fortaleza de Tumpis, only was declared a national heritage site in 2000. Like many other desert ruins, the sand has covered the secrets of this temple and it’s hard to visually appreciate its former grandeur, unlike the massive rock structures of the Incas.

On top of that, Cabeza de Vaca is located in the Corrales district of Tumbes, which is a struggling community (much like Huaycán, where I volunteered in 2012-3). As in many parts of Peru, including Huaycán, this community has grown through land invasions. This means that many homes are actually built on top of the less obvious sections of the ruins, and it’s hard for the ministry of culture to protect them from damage.

Cabeza de Vaca / Fortaleza de Tumpis, Corrales, Tumbes, Peru
Cabeza de Vaca / Fortaleza de Tumpis, Corrales, Tumbes, Peru

Because the ruins are only beginning to be excavated, studied, and understood, it is challenging for archeologists and the ministry of culture to get funding to protect the ruins as well as continue the investigation. There are many secrets beneath these layers of earth, but it is a painstaking process to understand why.

Cabeza de Vaca / Fortaleza de Tumpis, Corrales, Tumbes, Peru

As you can see in this image, the interesting aspect of these ruins is that you can watch the process of excavation and see what new discoveries are being turned up as archeologists uncover and descend into deeper, better protected layers.

Cabeza de Vaca / Fortaleza de Tumpis, Corrales, Tumbes, Peru

You end up seeing something like this, some sort of canal. The early cultures understood how to construct canals in the most ingenious ways, and these ruins also have an extensive system. If you notice the walls in these photos, the brickwork is very different, suggesting the different eras of construction.

Ruins Under Investigation, Cabeza de Vaca, Corrales, Tumbes, Peru

Unfortunately for me, the most recent excavations – and according to my guide, some of the most interesting – were actually being protected from the El Niño phenomenon and its rains by these tarps, so there wasn’t much to see. I’d be curious to return on a future visit to see how work has progressed.

Views of Panamerican Highway, Cabeza de Vaca, Corrales, Tumbes, Peru

Museo, Cabeza de Vaca, Corrales, Tumbes, PeruFrom the vantage point of these ruins located on one of the few hills in the area, you can see the expanses of fields being toasted by the desert sun. Further west you run into the ocean and the mangroves. And that’s the Panamerican Highway as it passes through northern Peru, just a simple two-lane highway in these parts.

After my tour, we headed back to the museum to see some of the relics that have been uncovered during investigations. These shards of pottery do not look like much, but they are painted reminders of the ceremonial importance of this site.

Museo, Cabeza de Vaca, Corrales, Tumbes, Peru

The most interesting piece in the museum, for me, was this fragment of adobe painted in what is very clearly the chakana, or Inca cross, a symbol common in artwork found throughout the Andes. The colors on this piece are quite vibrant given the passage of time, and as I’ve learned through my travels, desert ruins that were painstakingly painted in this fashion had deep ceremonial significance.

All in all, I enjoyed my brief but fascinating visit to Cabeza de Vaca, and I highly suggest that you make time to get here if you’re enjoying the beaches of northern Peru. It’s super easy to get to the ruins on public transportation – you get off any shared van at the crossroads to Corrales and hop in a mototaxi to the ruins. I provide more information in my recommendations, below.

City of Tumbes

Menú vegetariano, Vegetarian Restaurant, Tumbes, PeruAfter visiting Cabeza de Vaca, I wanted to head into Tumbes to get to know the city and buy my return ticket to Lima. From Corrales, I took a mototaxi to Corrales’ main plaza, where I got another combi heading directly into Tumbes. By this time, I was starving, so I wandered around the main plaza looking for a restaurant with an appealing vegetarian option.

Completely by accident, I stumbled upon a vegetarian restaurant! There is usually one vegetarian restaurant in every significant Peruvian city, and I find it’s a great way to get a sense of regional food tastes.

Amusingly, I happened to get the last table in the restaurant, and so when a pair of relatives came in right behind me, I offered to let them sit at my table. Turns out it was their first experience with vegetarian food, and probably their first experience eating with a gringa in Tumbes!

Catedral, Plaza de Armas, Tumbes, Peru

Sufficiently fueled, I continued wandering around the streets of Tumbes. The city center is compact and straightforward, so it is a pleasant place to spend the afternoon wandering around. The church on the plaza is pretty unique in construction style and reflects the colorful tastes of this region.

Plaza de Armas, Tumbes, Peru

Here’s another view of the Plaza de Armas, where you can see its colorful, unique arches. The inscription reads “Tumbes, cradle of South America’s petroleum wealth,” celebrating a major industry in these parts. Some of the buildings surrounding the plaza are relics from the colonial days – in the distance, you can see the balconies that are reminiscent of Spanish-style architecture.

Ruta Panamericana, Tumbes, Peru

Behind the plaza, there is a raised pedestrian walkway where you can get views of the brown river and the bridge that leads into the city. This bridge gets a lot of traffic as it is part of the Ruta Panamericana.

Plaza de Armas, Tumbes, Peru

You can see that the plaza was pretty empty due to the hot summer sun and humidity – everyone was hiding out in the more shady parts in the distance!

Plaza de Armas, Tumbes, Peru

My favorite part of the plaza was this amazing mosaic built into the band shell right on the plaza. I was fascinated by its symbolism, really representing the spirit of the region.

Plaza de Armas, Tumbes, Peru

As I wrote in my Instagram post, this mosaic is called “Encuentro de Dos Mundos,” a slightly nicer way to say “Two Worlds Collide.” In this detail shot you can see the force of Chilimasa, chief of the Tumpis, resisting the Spanish colonizer in the battles among the lush landscape of the mangroves in Tumbes.

This same spirit of resisting, surviving, and gathering strength continues today throughout Peru.

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Last but not least, Tumbes has a lovely pedestrian walkway that runs along the church where you can also take in the widely varying architecture, do some shopping, and buy some fruit, as I did (mangos are amazing in this region!). Interestingly, this part of the city is pretty peaceful considering the chaos back on the Panamerican just a couple of blocks away.

Near here, you can catch a bus to Puerto Pizarro, one of the fishing bays and beaches located close by. Puerto Pizarro is also one of the most common gateways to the mangroves, although I went on a tour from Puerto 25.

As you can see, Tumbes is a great place to spend an afternoon getting to know a different aspect of Peruvian culture. I would have spent more time there, but I was looking forward to watching my last sunset in Zorritos.

Recommendations for Tumbes, Peru:

  • If you have time in your travel itinerary, make some time to get to know Tumbes and the surrounding area. Most travelers skip Tumbes and head directly to Máncora, but Tumbes can help broaden your perspective on life in this region. I suggest staying in Zorritos, located about 30 minutes from Tumbes, and using that as your base.
  • Tumbes is the first city you reach when crossing the border from Ecuador at Huaquillas. Contrary to the outdated information you may find in your Google search, the border crossing is now totally secure and easy as long as you have a through bus from Ecuador to Tumbes or Piura. Tumbes is a border city so it has its pockets of unsafe areas, but downtown Tumbes is perfectly safe to wander around and quite a pleasant place to spend an afternoon.
  • To visit the mangroves near Tumbes, you can catch a colectivo to Puerto Pizarro from the center of Tumbes at the stop shown in Google Maps. Although I didn’t visit myself, the locals I ate lunch with said it was well worth a visit. Personally, I visited the mangroves on a guided tour from Puerto 25, arranged by my hostel. That was totally worth it as well to see such a fascinating ecosystem.
  • If you have any interest in pre-colonial, pre-Incan cultures, visit Cabeza de Vaca, also known as the Fortaleza de Tumpis, located in the district of Corrales on the outskirts of Tumbes. Note that Corrales is a developing community or shantytown where many homes have been built through land invasions, but as long as you don’t flash your camera or other symbols of wealth around, it’s perfectly safe. To get there, take a shared van to the crossroads of Corrales and find a mototaxi to take you to the ruins. It should cost S/.2-3.
  • When you leave Cabeza de Vaca, you just walk back to the main road and flag down another mototaxi to head to the plaza of Corrales (if you’re going to Tumbes), or to the Panamerican, if you’re hoping to head back towards Zorritos or the beaches in Piura. The bus from Corrales to Tumbes costs S/.1 and runs frequently.
  • As I mentioned above, Cabeza de Vaca is still seeking funding for its excavation and protection, and more tourist visits can help with this process. There is not too much visible, but it’s worth it if you’re interested in learning more about pre-Incan cultures.
  • The vegetarian restaurant in Tumbes is located on Francisco Bolognesi, across from Alfonso Ugarte street, before you get to Piura. During the lunch hour, there is a chalkboard out front with the lunch specials and that’s how you know it’s a vegetarian restaurant – it says “Restaurante vegetariano.”
  • The Paseo Jerusalem is a lovely pedestrian walkway continuing to the park. All around Tumbes there are lovely mosaics and artistically constructed stone buildings and overpasses. It’s a pretty fascinating city to walk around.
  • You can catch a van back to Zorritos or onward to Máncora from the Panamerican, but it’s a hectic street so you might want to ask a local for some help.
  • If you’re traveling to Lima, I suggest Civa, whose office in Tumbes is located on the Panamerican. You can get on the bus in Tumbes or in any of the beach towns along the way. They have a vegetarian menu and the food on the route from Tumbes was generous – a giant tortilla with plantains and rice, yum!
[Tumbes, Peru: February 2, 2016]

Tumbes, Peru- Ancient Ruins at Cabeza de Vaca and Tumbes, the Tropical Border City

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